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It was Tuesday November 21st 1984 and I was giving my girlfriend 50 pounds so she could go to Amsterdam for the weekend. She wanted to make the trip with a friend and it was abundantly clear I was not invited. I was pissed off; what was I going to do while she was away?
That night the BBC News included an item from Ethiopia – I didn’t see it but Bob Geldof did. The report described rampant famine sweeping across an entire country just a few thousand miles away. The footage purposefully played on the emotions and showed children with distended bellies held in the arms of weakened and distraught mothers – in the background there were masses of people dying from neglect and starvation and no-one seemed to care. It seemed as if the reporter, so affected by what he saw, was daring the world to come up with an answer to this frightening and enormous problem. I’m sure that as he filed his story he never imagined that the saviour that would answer his call would be a shabby, charming, loud-mouthed, opinionated, lead singer for a fading Irish punk band.
The Boomtown Rats had been, for a brief moment, the Beatles and the Oasis of their day. They’d had number one hits and they?d reaped all the benefits that popular bands do: they’d had the babes and the limos and the bucks but now their career was in the dumper. Bob the Gob was the most outspoken front man of his time and the journalists and the public had lapped up his bon-mots. He snickered and joked his way up the charts, had married the infamous blonde Paula Yates and had even starred in a movie directed by Alan Parker. But he’d become a sort of cartoon character, had called his daughter a silly name which made the press guffaw and, now the hits weren?t coming, the public was turning its back on him.
I worked at Phonogram Records and we couldn’t turn our back because Bob and the Rats were on our label and they had a new album about to be released. It was to be called In The Long Grass and it was supposed to be their comeback record. If the band had a manager I don’t remember who because it was Bob who was calling the shots. Like all good managers Bob was on the rampage at the label pushing us to get everything in line for the album’s release. There was a video to be made (my department), a tour to be booked and press and TV appearances to be scheduled. Because the Rats were felt to be yesterday’s news it was all an uphill struggle but if anyone could do it Bob could. He even persuaded his wife, presenter on the hottest TV show The Tube, to get the band on TV. Everyone knew it was hypocritical and nepotistic but somehow it’s very un-cred-ness was cool because Bob and Paula were larger than life and married. And then he decided to take the evening off and watch TV.
Our offices were on Bond Street and at lunchtime I would go down the street to the news kiosk, purchase the Evening Standard, and slip into a little alleyway behind Sotheby’s to eat a plate of grease and chips at the Sintra cafe while I attempted the quick crossword. After lunch on this particular Wednesday I returned to work and was called into my boss Tony Powell’s office. As I recall Bob was there with Tony and the head of our company Brian Shepherd. It appeared that Bob had just successfully completed the first of many passionate pleas that were to change the world. Tony explained the plan quite simply, “Bob saw this news broadcast about Ethiopia last night where thousands and thousands are dying from famine. He?s going to make a record at the weekend, you’re going to make the video, the record will be available by next Friday and we’re going to try and get it to number one for Christmas. All proceeds will go to towards famine relief.”
It all seemed so simple: problem, decision, result, solution.
Bob must have had quite a morning. He had decided to make a record for a song he’d not yet written and convince his label, a staid German / Dutch multinational no less, to release it for no profit as a priority above all other releases to pursue the holy grail of British single releases – a Christmas Number One. In addition he’d also found the time to ring Robert Maxwell, notorious publisher and owner of the Daily Mirror (a large circulation British daily paper), to persuade him to guarantee the entire front page of the paper on Monday morning – a double page spread inside was also promised. It was now the middle of Wednesday afternoon as Bob sat in my office and explained the timetable once again. The backing tracks would be recorded on Saturday at Midge Ure’s house, the overdubs would be done on Sunday with loads of stars which is where I would shoot the video and by the following Thursday (just 8 days away) the video would be shown on Top Of The Pops and thousands of copies of the record would be available in every record store in the country ready for the buying frenzy that would start on Friday morning.
He didn’t have a band, or anyone to sing the song he hadn’t written. I didn’t have a film crew and I wouldn’t have a budget for the video that the BBC did not yet know they would be playing. There was work to be done. I had a spare phone in my office and Bob used it to start what would become the most selfless, persuasive, determined and remarkable phone-sales campaign that I will ever witness. From the phone at my side he would call Presidents of labels and Presidents of countries and would blag anything he could for free including, eventually, the use of the Suez Canal.
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Bob was a tall man who seemed perpetually unshaven and sported an unruly case of bed-head that had remained out of control for years. He would wear a wrinkled linen suit with embroidered red velvet carpet slippers. He would pull his fingers through his hair trying to force it behind his ears as he lazered holes in your face with his piercing eyes. He’d quote facts faster than you could absorb them and say “fock” every three words and “shite” every five. He was earnest, passionate, sincere, conniving, funny and determined. He was the most alpha of alpha-males I’ve ever met and he was like a dog with a bone. And as you were becoming rather too impressed by him he would laugh his ridiculous laugh from the back of his throat with quick and repeated intakes of breath that completely deprived him of his dignity. As a singer he had limited skills, as a front-man he was supreme. Bob could be a pain in the arse but he was also lovable – he was the perfect man for the job he’d just invented for himself.
As the weekend rushed upon us all other work became secondary. I met Michael Kuhn, then head of PMV (Polygram Music Video). He told me that PMV would give me 10,000 pounds to cover anything I couldn?t get for free but he hoped that I would use as little of the money as possible. In the event the only people who refused to donate their goods or services completely free were Kodak who were supplying the film stock. When Bob found out he was furious and subsequently berated Kodak in public for being so miserly. Typically his anger paid off – Kodak would became one of the major sponsors for Live Aid.
In the dying days of 1984 charity fund-raising records were an occasional novelty. Everyone had heard of Concert for Bangla Desh and No Nukes but few people in London had been asked to donate their goods or services. I found it easy to round up a crew of cameramen and assistants willing to work for free for a day. My friend Dave Bridges would be the DP (Director of Photography) and his company Tattooist would supply all the camera bodies and lenses. Visions, my favourite post house, threw in everything without question and, apart from Kodak, I managed to put together the entire shoot without spending a penny. It was really quite easy.
Bob had more to do and he seemed to be finding the going harder. Midge Ure, one time Ultravox singer and Thin Lizzy gun for hire, and Bob had now written the song and had come up with Band Aid as a name for the project but who was going to sing it? Bob was overwhelmed with maybes and if I cans but the definite yesses were fewer and farther between. Another concern was that none of the black artists Bob approached were interested in participating. He didn’t want to send a message that this was a bunch of overpaid white kids telling the world what to do – he wanted the message to be more universal.
In addition to rounding up the talent Bob had also taken control of the PR bandwagon that he needed to give the project the necessary muscle. On Thursday he rang Malcolm Gerrie, the producer of the Tube, from my office. Malcolm is a hard-headed TV guy who?s recently hit the headlines for being the guy Russell Crowe tried to beat up at this years BAFTA awards. As Bob’s wife Paula was a presenter on the Tube Bob knew Malcolm well but also knew that Malcolm was against the planned Boomtown Rats appearance that his wife had blagged for him on the show. Any negotiation for Band Aid would therefore need to be delicate.
Bob started out his conversation with Malcolm politely telling him about the project and asking him to send a crew to do a story on the recording on Sunday. Malcolm was interested but needed to know who else would be there. Bob: “The BBC, ITV (news), CBS, ABC, NBC, Reuters, The Times, The Mirror, The Sun, The Old Grey Whistle Test…” The Old Grey Whistle Test was the granddaddy of BBC rock shows. Malcolm?s show, The Tube, was the hip, independent, mischievous antedote to OGWT and was on the enemy station. To ask The Tube and OGWT to cover the same event was like asking Leno and Letterman to have their picture taken together. Malcolm balked, “If OGWT are covering it then the Tube won’t, it’s us or them.” “Look Malcolm,” Bob replied, “This is bigger than petty focking jealousies between rock shows, this is about life and death.” I could tell Bob was getting upset and things were going to get ugly. Malcolm held his ground, “You know how it is Bob, if they cover it we can’t. Of course we’re interested, of course we’d like to help, this is a great thing you’re doing but you’ll just have to choose.” For the first time I watched Bob manipulate and gamble with all the chips for the greater good: “Listen Malcolm, Robert focking Maxwell has guaranteed Band Aid the front page of the Mirror on Monday morning and he?s also promised me a focking double page spread on the inside. On the left hand page will be a list of all those people who’ve helped. On the right hand page will be a list of all those who haven’t. So far you?re the only focking name on the right hand page!”
Bob slammed down the phone and leant back in his chair. I was like, “Jeez, Bob do you think that was such a good idea?” Bob shrugged his shoulders as my phone rang again. “It’s Malcolm Gerrie from the Tube. I need to speak to Geldof.” Bob grabbed the phone and grunted, “Yes….. OK….. deal…. absolutely. See you Sunday then.” At the risk of alienating the only producer who would put the Rats on TV Bob had staked it all to get the blanket coverage he demanded. The agreement Bob made with the Tube was that for the first time ever The Tube and OGWT would cover the same event but when Bob subsequently went to deliver the aid to Ethiopia Gerrie and crew would be the only team to go with him. Two birds, one stone.
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On Saturday afternoon I found myself knocking at the door of an elegant house in Kensington. Soon I was ushered through the house towards the studio that Midge Ure had built for himself at the bottom of the garden. So this was what pop-stars did with their cash I thought. Sting was there and Paul Weller too and the track was taking shape rather nicely. There was nothing for me to do and I was in awe of the assembled quartet so I soon slipped away wondering what the following day would bring.
Sunday morning was clear and sunny as I arrived outside Basing Street Studios. As a young rock fan I had pored over album sleeves and this rather ugly building was the Holy of Holies where many of my favourite albums had been recorded. Now I was being welcomed inside by Trevor Horn who now owned the studio. In London we had just passed through the summer of Frankie Says and Trevor was the guy to have behind the desk if you were making a record – I was excited, it seemed I had passed some mysterious exam and had been allowed to participate in something at which many of my heroes might be present.
But what would happen if we were throwing a party and nobody came?
Once again this was all Bob?s responsibility and he must have been worried. Pop stars are not amongst the most dependable of folk and who but the most optimistic and foolish of betting men would bargain on getting a bunch of poncy pop stars out of bed to work for free on a Sunday morning? The tape was ready, the floor of the studio had been cleared, the press were congregating outside and I had my three cameramen, their three assistants and a sound recordist and my long suffering assistant Sarah inside…all we needed was some talent.
Bob had primed his charges well. We got the call that Bananarama were approaching and we dashed outside to get it on film. The initial dribble became a torrent as star after star turned up at the door – even more remarkable many arrived alone without managers, minders or other halves. The morning?s arrivals included Paul Young, Bono, Sting, Paul Weller, Steve Hedley and the Kemp Brothers from Spandau Ballet, Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, Andy Taylor and John Taylor from Duran Duran, Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt from Status Quo, George Michael, John Moss from Culture Club, Marilyn, Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17 and of course the Rats: Johnny Fingers, Pete Briquette and Simon Crowe. And most importantly Bob had broken the white barrier that he feared would tarnish the project – everyone in Kool and The Gang showed up along with the gorgeous Jody Watley. In his newly printed Feed The World T-shirt Bob was smiling – the first major hurdle had been cleared.
Everyone collected in the studio and stood in a makeshift crescent in front of the mics as Trevor started teaching everyone the chorus: “Feed The World, let them know it?s Christmas Time again…” Within a short time the tapes were rolling and work was progressing. With the chorus laid down we allowed the press in to take pictures. I remember counting an incredible 72 reporters, photographers, cameramen and sound recordists pressing forward to get the tape, the picture, the close-up they all needed. We tried to hold them back as the tapes rolled and the chorus mimed but it was useless – everyone pressed forward trying to get a clear shot. I remember the Bananaramas looking rather worried as the snappers and shooters got within about two feet of them. I marked a line on the floor and shouted for silence. “Step over this line and I?ll throw you out!” I yelled at the representatives of some of the world?s greatest news organizations. “Ooooh!” murmured all the stars, giggling at my rather stupid head-schoolboy-like threat. It was of course useless and once again the press corps pushed forward until no-one could get a clear shot. Eventually Sarah and I raced across the street to a building site and stole a 20 foot plank. We held it in front of the journos who banged off their pics and were soon gone.
Less than 90 minutes later we were all sandwiched into the TV room downstairs. The lunchtime news on ITV featured the singalong and the story of Bob and Midge?s effort as one of it?s lead stories. There we all were on TV already and somehow it validated everything we were doing – if it?s on TV it must be happening.
As it was lunchtime, stomachs were rumbling and one hapless pop-star put our thoughts into words: “Is there any food, Bob?”
There was a sudden silence as a cloud passed across Bob?s face. We all stared at the hungry singer who suddenly looked like the idiot from those Bateman cartoons in old Punch magazines. “You?re a focking millionaire and you want free food? There?s a focking chip shop on the corner, buy your own lunch.” The joy we?d all shared at hearing the voices sing that memorable chorus for the first time evaporated as we remembered why we were all here. The point was well made and we returned to work.
Now began the job of laying down the individual vocals and our first victim was Paul Young. The one time front man for the Q-Tips leant into the mic: “It?s Christmas time, and there?s no need to be afraid…” Midge suggested another way to sing the lines. Paul tried it again. Bob suggested another approach, Paul tried it Bob?s way. As I stooped with a camera at Paul?s feet I heard Midge?s voice over the talk-back: “One singer, one song. Just do it the way you feel is best,” and the formula for the day?s work was reached.
The modern recording studio is a magical place – it allows you to make the ordinary sound wonderful. Conversely so many effects and techniques are applied to voices in the modern recording process that you lose sight of who can really sing and who?s bluffing. Sitting there with the camera just feet from the singers who came in I heard all their voices unadorned for the first time. Paul Young?s voice sounded strong, soulful and clear, just as you?d expect; Sting?s voice seemed strangely out of tune on it?s own but then incredibly right in context; Bono?s voice was like a wild emotional howl, unique and distinctive; George Michael amazed me with his control and quiet professional approach; Simon LeBon was unfortunately unmasked in such company as just a handsome front man.
We?d been told that Boy George would be arriving in the afternoon – he was flying in especially from New York on Concorde just to sing his two lines. For some reason there was doubt that he?d make it but suddenly he was there asking for a brandy to help his sore throat. His voice was a stupendous surprise and I vowed to go home that night and check out my Culture Club records with a fresh perspective.
Most of the artists who stayed on for the afternoon?s festivities were of a certain age – most of them had enjoyed time in the charts during the past few years. And as one they all expressed interest in waiting for the arrival of one man who was scheduled to be the only musician to play that day – the only person who been making records for years: Phil Collins. I?d known Jon Moss, Culture Club?s drummer for years, and asked why he was hanging around so long in the afternoon. “Phil Collins is coming. I can?t go until I see Phil play.”
With the lead vocals complete Phil?s kit was set up in front of the control booth and he came inside to listen to the track. As is often the case heads dutifully bobbed as everyone grooved (or pretended to). Terse musical comments were made to establish a kind of rapport / pecking order. Phil was all business, no smiles, settled down at his kit and the tape and the cameras rolled.
There?s much talk nowadays about “Living In The Moment.” Back in 1984 I?d never heard such talk yet for the first time in my life I can remember doing just that. “This is an incredible moment I?m witnessing,” I thought. “Something this remarkable may never happen to me ever again. This is my ?Woodstock moment? – remember how it feels.” I was sitting just inches from Phil Collins kit as he banged away in only the way that he can. As my cameraman circled his kit Malcolm Gerrie?s crew circled on the other side. There they are in the video – true to their word they?d showed up and they?d decided to do a special on the Band Aid recording thereby trumping their rivals at the Beeb.
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We wrapped at eleven p.m. and Dave Bridges left for the Mirror printing plant to shoot the front page story coming off the presses that opens the video. All the footage we?d shot was processed overnight and on Monday morning we started transferring all the dailies to tape. That evening I sat down with my editor, Dave Gardener, to start on the cut. During the night Bob came by with the mixes of the track and I wept as I heard his final message on the B-side. In keeping with that emotion I included a similar message at the end of the video. We finished the cut by breakfast on Tuesday morning and as the boxes were being labeled I stumbled into the dawn and hailed a cab to take me home to bed – it was less than a week since Bob had seen that first broadcast from Africa.
At 7pm on Thursday evening, five minutes before the broadcast of Top Of The Pops, the Beeb interrupted their normal programming and David Bowie appeared on the screen and introduced our video – I was stunned. Pride got the better of me – this wasn?t about saving lives – this was about Bowie watching my work!
Victor Hugo famously wrote: “There?s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come” and certainly Bob had touched a nerve. The record raced to number one and stayed there for weeks becoming, at the time, the largest selling single in British history ultimately raising 12 million pounds. Before long everyone was getting in on the act and every country with a recording studio and a star was recording it?s own famine relief disc. Bob was asked to fly to LA to attend the recording of USA for Africa. He returned with a scowl on his face and told me that the session was well organised with backstage passes and the like but he was distressed by the celebrity grand-standing and the huge tables full of elegantly catered food available for the stars and their entourages which he felt was not in keeping with the spirit of the cause.
Bob?s life was changing before our eyes. The Rats were touring and passing buckets into the audience at gigs to collect yet more cash for the Band Aid fund but Bob?s passion and vision for his cause was turning him from a scruffy celebrity into a powerful spokesman who told the truth. As the Rats career slid inexorably into the dumper Bob flew to Africa to check out the problems first hand. On his return Bob addressed the EEC in Brussels and the news cameras caught him as he left the meeting still dressed in his velvet carpet slippers. Maggie Thatcher was close by and her spin dox were obviously eager to have the Premier seen shaking hands with the new darling of international politics. What they hadn?t bargained for was a well-briefed, intelligent young man with a bug up his arse about the way Britain and Europe were idly sitting by watching millions die on the other side of the Med. “Mr. Geldof, we?re all so terribly proud of what you?re doing!” she said smiling that sickly, condescending Thatcher smile but Bob wouldn?t let go her hand go. “What are we going to do about the butter mountain?” he inquired. “With your permission I could have all the butter stored in Europe made into biscuits and shipped to Africa within days.” Thatcher?s smile was slipping: “It?s not quite that simple you know Mr. Geldof and I don?t think this is the time or the place for this do you?” “Why not? People are dying as we speak!” I suppose people talk to Prime Ministers like that all the time – but you don?t see it on TV. Bob was doing whatever it took to achieve what he wanted and he didn?t care who got in his way – his view was no-one had voted him in so there was nothing to lose, he could say what he liked.
As the cash rolled in Bob had found an aid organisation, based in London, to help him get the money directly to where it needed to go. He avoided the usual agencies like Oxfam and was soon purchasing trucks to drive the supplies from the docks right to the heart of the famine. The trucks were then left in the area to assist in creating local work. Bridges were built, wells were dug. For the first time I heard the saying: Give a man a fish and he?ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he?ll eat for a lifetime. That was what Bob was trying to achieve. By the following Christmas, when the Band Aid record was released again, I was asked by Bob to do a new cut of the video using footage shot in Africa of the supplies being delivered – over the top of the pictures I laid captions detailing the impressive list of accomplishments that the Band Aid money had brought to fruition.
* * *
Sometime in the spring Bob had another brainwave. He was going to promote a concert that would take place simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic with a huge array of stars. TV stations would pay hand over fist for the rights, dial-in pledge lines would be set up and, again, all the profits would go into the Band Aid pot. The concert would be called Live Aid.
Once again everyone was frightened to commit. It was the summer of Springsteen?s massive Born In The USA jaunt through Europe and it appeared that everyone who Bob asked to appear on Live Aid replied, “If Bruce is doing it then I will too.” The months on the road had worn Bruce down and he too turned Bob down but, realising he was the catalyst who could start the ball rolling, made a deal with Bob. Bob could tell everyone that Bruce was going to appear to make them commit. Quietly, sometime before the big day, Bruce?s name would be withdrawn from the list of acts and no-one would say a word. In addition Bruce, who would play Wembley the week before Live Aid, would leave his massive rig and staging up in the Wembley Arena for Bob to use at no charge.
By now Band Aid had its own office and Bob would use the phone in my office less frequently but one day he called President Mubarek of Egypt from my desk and secured the use of the Suez Canal for free in order to get some food through to the famine without having to pay the stiff canal duties. Bob was calm, persuasive, relaxed and got what he wanted – it was as if he was asking the local constable to help out with the school fete.
On another occasion Bob was trying to secure Hall and Oates for the Live Aid gig. They were hot stuff in that summer of ?85 and their manager refused to let his boys appear for free….unless of course they could headline. Bob agreed instantly and smiled. The manager smelt a rat (!) and asked why Bob was so eager to grant what must have been the spot everyone was asking for. Bob replied: “I?ve been looking for weeks for the band stupid enough to want go on after the reformation of Led Zeppelin, after Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, after Queen after Bob Dylan….!”
* * *
By now my girlfriend and I had broken up but we still went together to see Bruce?s gig at Wembley. He played for hours and we shouted ourselves hoarse. I was too shagged out to go back to Wembley again 6 days later and decided to watch the show on TV. Dave Hepworth expertly guided the British end of things through as we cut from the US stage to the UK stage and back. Things seemed to be going quite smoothly and the music was great. As Dave made another announcement Bob burst into the control room and ripped the mic from Dave?s hands. I could tell one of his infamous tirades was coming. “Listen to me you lot. Ireland, which is one of the poorest countries in Europe, has pledged over 5 million pounds so far today and you fuckers here in England who are far richer, have only pledged two million. Get off your arses, get on the phone and give me your money….NOW!” Bob pushed the mic back into Dave?s hand and left the room. The pledge-lines lit up like fireworks.
I haven?t seen Bob for years. At times I found him to be a difficult, stubborn man who was opinionated and loud. However I doubt I will ever meet a person for whom I could have more respect. His determination was astonishing and his selflessness was so blind it destroyed the career of his band. He was quite honest about wanting to get out of the Band Aid industry and, as recent events have shown, his capacity for forgiveness and compassion is beyond description. Saint Bob? Sir Bob? Just Bob? I don?t know but I was glad in that November of 1984 I had a weekend with nothing to do.
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(N.B. These are the events as I remember them now over 20 years later – please forgive me if the numbers and the details are a little rubbery. If you?ve got some more accurate information you know where to send it!)